What is Africa like?
When Don suggested Africa as a destination, my first instinct was to say no. I’ve come a long way, as he likes to say. The one thing that has been consistent, are the friendly people. We have been welcomed everywhere. It’s taken some getting used to, but it is amazing. For the last few weeks we have been traveling through Kenya and Rwanda.
There’s a bright fob with a key that hangs beside the zippered door outside our tent. At first I thought it was light security, but no, it’s for the monkeys. Their technique is ‘snatch and grab’ and this morning I caught them in the act, drinking out of a bottle of orange Fanta the kids had left on the deck. Guards patrol the grounds surrounding the camp, accompanying us from tent platform to eating platform. They wear fatigues and carry nothing more then a stick. Their presence seems a bit much until you see a GIANT bull elephant walking past your tent. Unlike the elephants we came across in Thailand (see Chang Mai post), these are WILD elephants and we’re not about to reason with them if they decide to charge. The advice is to ‘run under the tent platform’ GULP. OK.
My mom has come to join us on a safari that will take us to four different spots in Kenya, and then onto Rwanda. It’s sweltering hot here in Samburu, and there are LOUD animal noises that sounds from every direction at night. Fortunately we have Mark Ross with us. He’s our biologist, pilot, and guide of all things Africa. He’s keen to show us everything from ant highways to elephants mateing and can speak several animal tongues… including ‘elephant’. Some of the animals don’t have a language, but Mark imitates their predator or their prey, and they react. He makes the sound of a gazelle and the leopard rises from her hiding spot.
Mark insists that we sit on top of the truck, “How can you see anything sitting inside your vehicle?” There are no objections from the kids, so up on top of the Land Rover we go. No car seats, no seat belts…freedom like we’ve never known (don’t try that at home). Elephants surround us on all sides of the truck. Babies, mothers, aunties and grand-mothers frolic in the rivers, while the boy (bull) elephants jostle for surpremacy. Is this real? Elephants talk to each other in muffled grunts that we humans can only hear half of due their range of frequencies. Researchers have discovered that they actually use words. They’re so majestic, and seemingly slow moving, but can still do serious damage and deserve total respect. They are the real kings of the african wilderness.
A defeated bull elephant decided to trash the researcher’s truck. A rare occurrence, but a good reminder that they are wild animals and not always so cute or rational. Fortunately no one was hurt.
Outside of the Samburu National Park is the small town of Archer’s Post. Two old Samburu grandmothers come to take a look at Gwen. They’re curious and pinch her white cheeks and give her a necklace. The town is probably wealthy, being on the highway, compared to some. We walk around and shake hands with the elders (a sign of respect), finally stopping for hot sweet tea and donuts. Samburu warriors and women are weighted down in their traditional beads. This is not a tourist destination. It’s a powerful experience.
It’s a bit unnerving staring into the face of a lion and her cubs. I’m generally not much of a worry-wart…but…This IS A LION we’re talking about!!! She saunters by urging her cubs with her nose with an air that says, ‘Don’t look at them.’ Most of the animals we see are used to seeing safari trucks. They barely register our presence, and carry on.
Lewa downs (26C, 10 low ), Kenya. Mix Savanah and woodland Acacia
We’re heading to Lewa Downs, a world renowned animal conservation property in central Kenya and home of the BIG FIVE (Lion, Rhino, Buffalo, Leopard, Elephant). We’re right on the equator, 6000ft above sea level. It’s cool compared to Samburu, but impossible to sit in the sun for more then a few minutes without feeling like you’re getting scorched. Before we’ve even reached the house, we spot a mother cheetah with two nearly full-grown cubs. She doesn’t look happy to see us, and they scatter.
If there is one place to go in Kenya, this is it! We each climb onto our horses and head out into the open acacia savannah. Zebra’s, giraffes, and gazelles dapple the early morning landscape. I’m having a hard time taking it all in… our whole family riding in this truly epic vista..amazing. I’m in love. I could stay here in this moment forever. It is so astoundingly beautiful.
Most days we get up early before the sun rises. We have hot coffee brought to our room and then we go on safari, back for lunch, a rest, and then safari in the late afternoon. All the kids have been surprisingly patient about driving around for hours, being quiet, and looking for animals…but they are starting to unravel. They need a run around day, so we take a break with only a picnic planned. Karmushoo, a Masai warrior, leads us down to a waterfall hidden in the ravine. An oasis awaits us, and a picnic lunch brought in by donkeys. We peel off our clothes and every one jumps in after Mark assures me there are no anacondas (scared away by crocodiles, ha ha). Still, Don’s leg accidentally touches mine and I scream HOLY *#!@ underwater!
A male and female ostridge. They may look a bit silly, but they can kill you with a high kick to the head with their inches-long claws. Last year, someone was killed by one at Lewa. When Don went out for a midday run with Mark, a car insisted on following them as guards…against ostridges and everything else.
IL MORAN, Masai Mara (28C,10 low) Savanah
We’re in a tent again, but this is no ordinary tent. It’s big…big enough for all of us and a claw foot bathtub! Five star camping to say the least. There’s low growling and a ‘heehaw’, noise outside. Some 50 feet from our tent is a steep river bank, and then the Mara River. It’s muddy banks are filled with Hippos and Crocodiles (some more the 15 feet long). Mark says both are extremely dangerous and I believe him. Many stern lectures are given! At night the sounds get louder as the Hippos call to each other. Again, we need guards to shepherd us around at night. Surprisingly, I feel safe in our canvas tent, and barely wake up when an elephant crashes through the brush beside our tent.
Today, we are in a Land Rover which bumps along the gravel roads. Before we’ve even reached the rolling grass savanah, we see elephants, baboons, gazelles, buffalo and zebras. When you see other safari trucks gather, you know that they have found something. To our shock, this time, it’s a pride of female lions devouring the remains of a cape buffalo, and, if that was too boring, on the other side of the truck are a male and female mating. Sex-ed, check. It’s hard to know where to look. With lions, it’s better to sit in the truck then on top. They could find heads irritating and jump on the car. Watching lions ripping apart a carcass 10ft from your car (that happens to be full of our children) sounds like madness, but Mark reassures me we’re safe. A man from National Geographic, actually GETS OUT of his car to grab his “turtle cam” which the lions had tossed. Now that is madness!
Rusinga Island. Lake Victoria (the second biggest freshwater lake in the world).
“Hey Mzungu” (Hey white person), children yell. Uproars of laughter from everyone we pass by. White people on bikes must be a hilarious sight?! Don and I have borrowed bikes from the lodge and take a spin along the dirt roads. Kids race us on foot laughing and giggling,”Hello, how are you?” they all ask, the one line they must learn first school. People sitting out in front of their dirt huts smile and giggle. The people of Rusinga are extremely friendly. Later, when we take the kids into the small fishing town of Sindo, there is lots of interest. We take pictures, and the people laugh when they see the images of themselves. Gwen, ever outgoing, tries her hand at rolling a tire. People stare with curiosity. We meet a ‘Mama” selling maize and beans, and the kids eagerly help her pick up any beans that have spilled. We even have some ground, in the diesel-powered mill, to take back to the kitchen at the hotel.
Rusinga seems overrun with children. Many of these kids are orphans, their parents having passed away from AIDS. Mark tells us that probably 50% of the people have AIDS or are HIV carriers. What? is AIDS really still an epidemic? Its a shock! Giant white fishing nets are laid out to dry on the grass. They’re made from mosquito nets, which have been donated by the Gates Foundation. If your dead from starvation, a mosquito net can’t save you from malaria.
I’m not sure what I really expected when we landed in the Kigali airport in Rwanda, but what I saw was not it. Large planes sit on the nice new tarmac and the arrivals building is surrounded by a well-coiffed garden. What is amazing about the city of Kigali, is that it is so clean and green. On the last saturday of every month the people of Rwanda clean the streets. Everyone from the President to village farmers walk the streets and clean up garbage. Unlike so many third world countries, it’s pristine.
Children are not allowed to go see the Gorillas, and after a few minutes of hiking, I’m glad that we left them back at the hotel with my mom. The path is lined with stinging nettles and ‘safari ant’ nests. Ashton would NOT be having fun. Aside from that, it’s a relatively easy hike. We hike 40 minutes through leafy bamboo and vines. Before long, our group meets up with the trackers who bring us to the gorillas. Even if you are prepared, the sight of these hairy big apes is breathtaking. A female gorilla appears, dips her hand into a nest of ants and carefully eats them off her fingers. What does it feel like to have ants running around inside your body? Before long a giant male silverback comes strutting onto the scene. He’s huge. We are so close, I could almost reach out and touch him, but I don’t dare. When he moves we move after him, slowly. When we are too close he lets us know, with a big ‘Huh Huh huh’.
After trekking we head to the local market. All eyes are on us. It’s not everyday that three white kids come to the vegetable market in Ruhengeri. At times, there are a ring of people around us 6 or 10 people deep. Everyone can’t get over watching them eat. White kids eating a banana…wow!!! Gwen and kate are amazing at shaking hands and moving through the crowd. For Ashton it’s a little more overwhelming, and he would rather sit on his dad’s shoulders.
We are back in Kigali. Our school at home, Ecole Cedardale, has a sister school in Rwanda, and over the last few months we have been trying to make contact. It’s difficult, but we manage to find Kigeme (aka Kihere) three hours from Kigali. This is a rural school and when we arrive we are almost immediately swarmed. This is mayhem! We’re surrounded by children 20-deep. If Ashton runs, there are 100 kids running after him. Overwhelming is an understatement.
The school has 1500 students and only 29 teachers. We’ve brought a few school supplies, but what they really would like is electricity. They are generous and give us a piece of art to take back to our school in West Vancouver.
Gwen walks slowly and shakes peoples hands. I am amazed at her calm composure and poise! “Just smile” I reassure her. On the whole, this is a good experience, but it’s surprising that no one (with the exception of one teacher), knows our school. Even the community administrator doesn’t seem to know about us. Is aid making it here? Are we losing something in translation? Perhaps, but I think we have some research to do when we get home.
Tomorrow, back to the coast for one last blast of Swahili culture and a swim.